Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Deep Borehole Disposal (wikipedia.org)
86 points by lelf 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 80 comments

This reminds me of the short story about a bottomless hole, which is definitely worth 3 minutes of your time to read: https://www.tommoody.us/archives/2015/03/17/he-y-come-on-ou-...

I started in about halfway through to get to the punchline faster. The ending didn't make any sense.

Decided to start from the beginning. Ah.

A very good little tale.

And that, gentleman, is why we leave weird artifacts like this one to the profesionals, namely the SCP foundation. ;-)

I know the story is intended to be "caveman science fiction" [1], but I can't help but think that that hole is probably still an excellent way to dispose of most of the things they're disposing of, particularly nuclear waste. After all, it spends, what, a couple decades totally isolated from the rest of the world? Great place for it to decay and become less active.

1: http://dresdencodak.com/2009/09/22/caveman-science-fiction/

I don't understand why nuclear waste disposal is so controversial. The amount of waste generated is relatively tiny. Choose a site without a permeable path to an aquifer, dump the waste, seal it off, and forget about it. What are the risks?

1. Some population thousands of years from now stumbles upon the waste and a small minority may die from exposure/contamination

2. Containment breach occurs due to degradation or earthquake or some other destructive event and some minimally radioactive waste leaks out of the containment site.

Are either of these serious concerns with respect to the benefit of nuclear power? If disposal occurs somewhere deep in the continental U.S., are there even any actors powerful enough to commandeer the waste for nefarious purposes? What am I missing?

3. Transportation

Here in Nevada a lot of us don't care about the waste that is all ready stored in Yuca Mountain. The Native Americans do, but that's another issue.

Many of us worry about how the waste is transported there, on large trucks, just recently on I-15 which goes directly through the center of downtown Las Vegas. Especially because its done in secret so there are no extra protections around the trucks carrying that waste.

4. Proper Payment (Not a risk, but still an issue)

Many of us would also be ok with keeping the waste in our backyard, but whenever there is an unevenly distributed danger or burden it is proper to reimburse the communities most effected, which isn't really happening.

Nevada as a state has either the worst public schools in the country or sometimes we get up to 48th place, depending on the year. A few million for our public schools in exchange for being the nuclear waste disposal site for the country seems like a fair trade.

> a site without a permeable path to an aquifer

This is why salt formations are ideal. The existence of the formation is proof that water isn't leaving the area and hasn't been leaving the area even on geological time scales.

Exactly, like the Asse mine and nuclear waste repository in Germany. Which now has 13500 liters of water flowing in each day, dissolving salt formations making for a slightly corrosive environment.



>> What are the risks?

Experience teaches that anytime we can't see the risks of a technological solution, it's not because there aren't any. But because we can't see them.

Like for example: Radium (used in all manner of products meant for human consumption), Thalidomide and asbsestos (used everywhere in building materials).

Or BSE (mad-cow disease; at the time, the UK minister of agriculture, John Gummer, publicly fed his daughter a beef burger to show there was no danger from consumption of Brittish beef) though that one is not a technological solution, as such; but it's a well-known case were risk was underestimated.

> Some population thousands of years from now stumbles upon the waste and a small minority may die from exposure/contamination

> I don't understand why nuclear waste disposal is so controversial.

You answered yourself.

> What am I missing?

A functioning conscience.

No personal attacks, please, regardless of how wrong someone else is or you feel they are.


Sorry dude. (I tried. You shoulda seen the stuff I deleted. Radiation poisoning is a horrible way to die.)

That's naively reductive. Any human endeavor, at virtually any scale, carries some risk. A cursory cost benefit analysis indicates that the potential reward, slowed or reversed climate change and fewer deaths from pollution, likely offsets the tiny probability that some future group of humans may stumble upon the waste and suffer. Consider also that any future civilization is likely to be advanced enough to recognize the danger of such an archeological site. Not to mention it's unlikely that any pictographic warnings will completely degrade over the course of thousands of years.

This really comes off as a minor issue considering the huge ratio of benefit to cost.

The shape of your thought is that of the car exec who okays the production of a dangerous car because it won't kill enough people to matter to the bottom-line. There's a difference of degree but not kind.

You really don't understand how that's controversial?

Every time you get in your car, you take the risk of causing a fatality to another driver or pedestrian. Have you sworn to walk everywhere? Real life carries risk. The rational behavior is to consider cost/benefit and make an optimal decision.

The car exec is pinching pennies to buy a yacht. I'm talking about switching to nuclear power to save potentially millions of lives with a marginal risk to a small number of people in the future.

It's like the infamous train problem, where you must choose between one life or multiple lives. Except in this case it's quite unlikely that future lives will be significantly impacted by nuclear waste.

To simplify further, you have 3 options:

1. Do nothing and allow continued fossil fuel related deaths and the likely progress of climate change

2. Ignore nuclear, bet on renewables, which have their own cost and may not come online quickly enough to avert global crisis.

3. Switch to nuclear yesterday, save millions (or billions) of lives from climate change and pollution, with a tiny risk to some future civilization.

Yes, the executive and I are both thinking "coldly", but the difference is that he is optimizing for pennies, whereas I am optimizing for lives and environment.

It's not like the Trolley Problem, it is the Trolley Problem.

I don't want to argue with you, what you're saying just sounds like rationalization to me. If you don't see the grotesque arrogance of poisoning the only known biosphere in the Universe, well, "I can't even...", as the kids say.

Here, imagine that Dr. Who (I know that's not his name) picks you up in his TARDIS and takes to the bedside of one of the people dying of radiation poisoning, can you explain to that person how you were just "optimizing"?

- - - -

> Every time you get in your car, you take the risk of causing a fatality to another driver or pedestrian. Have you sworn to walk everywhere?

I actually don't drive, and for exactly that reason: I learned as a child how many people are killed every year by car collisions and I was so horrified that I vowed never to drive a car, and I haven't. (Technically, I did have a camper van a little bit, as part of a plan to buy some land and camp there while building a house. It was a violation of my vow but I allowed for it as I wasn't going to use it on the road except to get to the land. Other than that, I've kept my vow.)

Our traffic system is an insane "mayhem lottery" that we force everyone to play whether they like it or not.

- - - -

> switching to nuclear power to save potentially millions of lives with a marginal risk

Yeah, or we could just reduce our power consumption and increase our energy efficiency.

This is mostly notable as an option because:

A) It's cheaper than building a Yucca Mountain

B) It can be built faster than Yucca Mountain, enabling it to actually be finished before it can be defunded or protested out of existence.

Most power generating reactors don't generate much waste relatively speaking... the bulk of the waste that exists is from nuclear weapons. So there's a need for waste disposal, but it's not as bad a problem as many people seem to think.

On top of that, newer reactor designs produce less waste, so in the future there may be even less of a need.

> enabling it to actually be finished before it can be defunded or protested out of existence.

Except, both of these things have already occurred:


Nonetheless, they still have the potential to be an easier to implement disposal solution because they're faster/cheaper to create than a massive project.

I expect it'll still be necessary to put the hole somewhere there aren't hundreds of people protesting oil pipelines, but that's a topic for the future.

I heard of a place waaaaaay out in the woods - very few people lived in the area - near the Canadian Shield. One day some some Unidentifed People with serious machinery started drilling a hole. After several days, they went home for the weekend. When they came back, the hole had been filled in.

This re-occured a couple more times. The UP never returned.

Well, then. You need to dig it out and report what you find.

Personally, I think all of the current "long term storage" options are bad. They promote the idea that we can deal with the garbage once and then the job is done. Continued storage in short term facilities on the other hand has various advantages:

* We can easily take the containers out again, if we find a better way to dispose or (re)use the garbage

* We can update the containers if new technologies allow better ones

* We can check that the containers are still sealed

* We do not forget about the garbage, so the chance that someone in the future is hurt by accidentally digging into it is minimized

It also has some pretty serious disadvantages. Just off the top of my head:

- End-of-life storage requires re-storage regardless of whether better technologies exist

- Spillage is more likely to occur due to more frequent handling/repackaging/relocation

- Workers are exposed to greater danger due to more frequent handling/repacking/relocation

- Overhead is greater since there will likely be a greater number of short term than long term storage facilities

- Accidents are more likely and more spread out over a larger area (assumption: short term storage requires more space than long term storage)

- The public is exposed to greater danger due to relocation.

Every time you move this stuff there's a chance for a vehicular accident or just a storage breach due to human and/or manufacturing error.

Whatever happened to vitrification as a solution for some classes of nuclear waste? That was the story for one hot second and I haven't heard about it since.

You have to assess these risks against the risk of living in New Jersey with a basement.

If it becomes cheaper to re-use or recycle than to throw away—in theory—we will reduce wastefulness and come up with better ways to deal with our problem.

But, humans being humans, some will start dumping illegally.

What happens when "We" - whatever local organization is managing this stuff - becomes defunct? This seems to be nearly certain to happen when the half-life of the waste is so much longer than the average lifespan of a national government.


They have solved a lot of these issues.

> We can easily take the containers out again, if we find a better way to dispose or (re)use the garbage

We already have ways to reuse the garbage. No new science required.

What we need is to lift the ban on breeder reactors and other modern designs.

Why are they banned?

Producing unlimited amounts of weapons-grade radioisotopes in many poorly-guarded places seemed like a bad idea.

I'm not sure how, let's say, radioactive waste short term storage should look like. It's not like you can put the rods into regular containers and safely transfer them between storage facilities.

Thorium reactors may or may not happen, but one nice part of a LFTR is that it can continuously burn up long lived fissile isotopes into short lived ones. Part of a LFTR's operating requirements are to filter the isotopes and extract or send them back in. Perhaps one day, we can reprocess long lived nuclear waste into shorter lived waste, and this won't be such a big problem.

I like the idea of short term storage but it sounds more expensive

How about we switch to [newer technology](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traveling_wave_reactor) that doesn't generate so much waste in the first place?

It still generates some waste, though, so the question of what to do with that waste remains.

Right, but we can't escape thinking about things qualitatively if we want to come to sensible solutions. If level of radiation is considered safe then we have to do something about all the potassium in our bodies.

What makes this one scary? I agree, the optics are terrible, but studies of each known dumpsite showed no real negative effects..

It's scary if you think that the precautionary principle should be guiding when dealing with radioactive waste and looking back in history of this, and many other examples of "this seem like a permanent solution" and later scientists going "actually...".

And I don't really get too much comfort from statements like "studies ... showed no real negative effects". I still imagine mutant lizards emerging from the ocean in the future with frazers[1] killing off all humanity.

[1] lizard tech, don't ask

I agree that ocean dumping is bad. I asked mainly because nobody openly dumps nuclear waste in the ocean any longer, and progress towards long term nuclear waste storage is being made (in Finland, particularly)

It seems like the amount of water in the ocean is so vast, that the quantities of nuclear waste dumped into it will not create a nuclear ocean, but I’m just speculating here.

Scary nuclear incidents to me are Cuban Missile Crisis, Able Archer 83, Stanislav Petrov incident, and the Norwegian rocket incident. Early nuclear era ocean dumping that isn’t being continued isn’t exactly an existential threat.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_Palomares_B-52_crash This one is also quite a scary example if you ask me.

> Early nuclear era ocean dumping that isn’t being continued isn’t exactly an existential threat.

I'm more worried because the mentality that lead to this doesn't seem to have changed whatsoever. The moment something is proven to be a dumb idea, people move on to the next best thing with the exactly same attitude of "We don't know it's bad, so let's just go with it"

> I'm more worried because the mentality that lead to this doesn't seem to have changed whatsoever.

I think the current attitude of "new technology will solve this" is an example of this mentality. Examples readily available in this thread.

"How the U.S. betrayed the Marshall Islands, kindling the next nuclear disaster" (latimes.com) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21870906

But in case there exists a hostile non-mutant species of lizards deep down there, dumping our nuclear waste might actually have been a proper defensive first strike. Who knows, maybe we completely wiped out an invasion army?

Its shockingly irresponsible behaviour from national governments of the first world, and these containers are probably not stable in the long term.

Not necessarily scary as "ow my god we are going to all die" sence.


A lot of folks here being real casual about adding radioactive poison to the only known biosphere in the whole Universe, especially considering that's where all our kids live.

There is a fusion reactor in the sky. It's maintenance-free and so powerful that it can burn out your retinas from a hundred and fifty giga-meters away.

Children are the future, unless we stop them today.

I don't think it's a good idea.

If there will be any fissure in the steel container, then the water we put on top for sure will get there and in the end, that hot contaminated water will raise at the top of water column.

I'm surprised people advocate in favor of nuclear energy when waste disposal is still an unresolved issue. Even if it's a modern reactor that has much less waste, it still needs to be safely handled for generations. If modern reactors are successful and their usage scales up, well that is more waste.

Both the state governments of Nevada and New Mexico have pushed back on long term storage plans, and the federal government appears to have no current solution.

Why is nuclear waste the only waste product that requires a perfect long term solution? We don't even have temporary solutions to millions of tons of fertilizer runoff or billions of tons of CO2 emissions. Mining for rare earth metals of solar panels produces a lot of toxic waste, some of which is radioactive. Why doesn't that get as much negative press as nuclear waste?

In 2010, there was an estimated 250,000 tons of nuclear waste [1]. The oceans naturally have 4 billion tons of uranium [2]. It seems to me that even the very dumb solution of scattering our nuclear waste across the oceans would have a negligible environmental impact compared to other destructive activities.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste [2] https://www.pnnl.gov/news/release.aspx?id=4514

It's the lesser evil, IMO. Nuclear waste may kill us but burning fossils will kill us.

It's not unresolved. We can handle it just fine. 99% of the issues are political because people are uneducated about nuclear and fear some kind of nuclear bomb fallout event (which isn't the case).

Sure it would be nice if we could have infinite solar power but until then, nuclear is far cleaner and safer than anything else we have today.

this is still the main issue to me. I read NTSB crash reports, I read other tech companies post-mortems, I watched Chernobyl, I've worked in devops for a decade. I don't believe that "we" (humanity) have even come close to solving for the long term reliability of systems to build/run thousands of nuclear reactors (what it would take to fight climate change using nuclear) without 1 - 10 of them being disasters.

Then on top of that, I even moreso don't believe we can build a stable society long enough to oversee and manage long term waste. We can't figure out how to handle two-generation problems well yet, taking the risk on a 10 generation problem seems to just completely fail to address reality.

It's probably a bad idea, but has anyone thought of sending nuclear waste into space? I've always thought that it might be possible to launch it into space using a space elevator (if that is even feasible), but then I can also see the disaster if something bad happened during the launch, resulting in cataclysmic event.

Putting a bunch of nuclear waste onto a rocket (basically a dirty-bomb ICBM) doesn't seem like the best idea. Look at how many rockets, to this day, blow up on launch.

If, however, this is contingent upon a space elevator, I wouldn't give it much thought at this time.

Some earlier spacecraft used thermoelectric generators powered by isotopic decay. More recently there have been some vigorous protests of this design, even though the modern versions apparently encase the radioactive material in a ceramic matrix.


If a well designed, low yield nuclear reactor can't be launched then firing random waste into space will surely draw many more protestors.

Also I'm often surprised by the volume of waste we're talking about here. Under this umbrella you have not only fuel rods but also contaminated materials (eg, building materials, soil), and the launch costs per pound are very, very high.

I think I heard at one point someone was trying to work out if they could safely evaporate water (heat of vaporization of water being much lower than most isotopes?) and just store the residuals but even that got pushback. Hanford, if memory serves, has a rather substantial volume of liquid waste to deal with, and some of the containment vessels are past their expected lifespan.

Also I can't believe I spaced on this, but we are trained by movies to ignore the fact that we are in orbit around the Sun, and you can't just 'drop' things into the Sun.

From the numbers I can find, the delta-v to achieve escape velocity from the Earth is just over half the delta-v needed to crash into the Sun. To "get rid" of something you need a big rocket. To get rid of it forever, the rocket equation means you need a rocket many times bigger to go 90% faster.

I'd imagine it would not have to leave just this planet, but also the whole solar system not to pose any future threat

We can make anything leave the solar system, with an escape velocity and the proper orientation.


Some of the nuclear material may be valuable in the future, so it's probably better to set it in a stable orbit between Jupiter and Saturn.

Considering the distance, is there any likelihood exposing this material (or the radioactivity) again outside of ... just drilling 3+ km deep to it?

This seems like a pretty solid option considering the costs / possible downsides of trying to "construct" something with similar levels of protection.

This sounds like a reasonable approach. Considering the volume of high level wastes actually being produced, dry cask storage might be the best option if we want to always have "eyes on" the waste materials. Physical risk is a little higher above ground, but you always know exactly where it all is at all times and you can constantly measure it for safety. Shoving it 3 miles deep into the earth is very likely not going to be a problem for anyone, but you will always have some uncertainty around how it is behaving down there.

It seems counter-intuitive to use a large amount of water on top of the borehole filling material. If some radiactive waste gets past the filling material, particles may rise up in the water all the way to the surface.

The "water" is actually drilling mud used to keep the bore from collapsing during construction. It is replaced with solid impermeable materials after the waste containers are loaded into the bottom of the hole.

Even if that happens, the ammount of particles that make it should be very low. At the very least low enough to not endanger the surroundings.

EDIT: Just guessing though, I'm no expert by any means

What a waste of good waste.

Indeed. What is "waste" now may be quite usable in the not-far future.

Analogy: every time I cook using aluminum foil, I cringe at throwing out a usable wad of the metal solely because there's some charred food waste on it, when I presume near-future tech will easily reclaim this useful element. Would be nice to have something between "trash" and "recycling" - pre-sorting junk so that future people have a not-unmanageable repository of materials they can work with even though we can't.

Likewise nuclear "waste" - it's still active material, generating energy, just needing a few more years/decades before we can use it. Even today we have (or soon will) reactors which "eat" waste from older designs. Put what we have in stable long-term containers, and making odds on when it can be used.

I'm not sure aluminium is a good example - while your foil is high purity aluminium, large part of Earth is aluminium bound with other elements. Traditionally the main issue was separating it from those.

It's questionable storing all this for later would be more efficient, even with higher purity, than just raffine it from rocks at industrial scale.

Why are you throwing out aluminium foil? Wrap it into a ball, and when the ball gets large enough, put it in the recycling bin.

They don't want it with burned/crusted/rotting food on it.

Indeed, most of the regular nuclear was can still be used as fissile material, if someone bothered to reprocess it. It also contans a lot of various useful (even valuable) elements, created by permutation during fission.

The amount of realy useless & dangerous is very small. Separating it from the rest is the issue, both economical & political.

Still seems like a better option to solve than trying to find a mythical ideal permanent storage place.

rather than hiding it down some hole or in a cave where it will be forgotten until it starts seeping into the aquifer, why not create a containment system that's right out in the open so everyone can keep an eye on it and maintain it?

The way I understand it, we expect that our waste will outlast our civilisation and that having it lying around in the open will endanger the civilisation(s) that (we fervently hope) will follow.

See wikipedia pages and references for work on this:

Long-time nuclear waste warning messages:


Waste Isolation Pilot Plant - Warning messages for future humans:


Also, examples of proposed hostile architecture here:


And the full permanent markers implementation plan, here:


Storing in salt domes is easier. Salt domes are completely impermeable because any incipient cracks creep close.

Unless water is introduced, whereupon they fail:

"Oil Drilling into a Salt Dome: Catastrophic Failure: Evidence Lake Peigneur 1980 Disaster BP"


This is why fracking is associated with earthquakes. Salt mining has a long and well-documented history of damaging subsurface and consequently surface structure, especially in 19th-century England.

Frackers were "whistling past the graveyard" by denying that fracking caused earthquakes. They've essentially replicated the history of salt mining associations and corporations who destroyed homes and even towns in their rabid search for salt profits:

"Salt: A World History" by Mark Kurlansky

"Northwich sinks!":


"Extraction of Bastard Brine in Northwich":


You certainly wouldn't want to frack in the salt dome, but you are conflating entirely separate issues. No one is pumping ultra-high pressure drill fluid into waste repos.

Applications are open for YC Winter 2021

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact